Ep. 239: Alex Berenson – How to Write a Page-Turner

Alex Berenson

Alex Berenson had the dream job. But he was unhappy. And perhaps it even scarred him in some ways.

He switched it up. To his true dreams. To the dreams he had for himself since he was a child.

I want to do this.

First off, Alex has written 11 bestselling thriller novels. Alex knows how to get the reader to turn the page and ask, “What happens next?!”

This is an unbelievably hard skill.

But it’s not the most important skill when you are moving into your dream job.

I will tell you the most important skill. And Alex explains more clearly how he did it when we are in the podcast.

The most important skill is to have this weird sort of “active arrogance”.

Here’s the gap: The best in your profession have skills, experience, and they know how to sit down and DO something every day.

The beginners: they WANT to do something. They PLAN to do something. They SAY they will eventually do it. They THINK they have the skills they need.

But they never do it.

The ones who succeed. They have the arrogance to think they can just simply sit down and do it. Despite not having the skills. Despite being total amateurs. They simply sit down and DO IT.

By doing it, you LEARN the skills, you DO the job [a first novel in Alex’s case], and you get better.

DOING is the only way to succeed. Most people stop before this point. Alex didn’t.

And thank god. Because his 11 bestsellers have been lifesavers for me. A way for me to dream. A way for me to escape.

Here’s how Alex did it:

Create your own universe

“In 2003 and 2004, I went to Iraq for the paper,” he said (he worked at The New York Times). “The war had ended, supposedly… we deposed Saddam. Most reporters go during the ‘active phase,’ so The Times said any cub reporter could put their hand up and go. So I put my hand up.”

Then he came back and realized he had stories. And John Wells was born. Alex has written 11 bestsellers. All page-turners. I wanted to know what made him start writing thrillers. I’ve always thought of writing fiction. I still wonder if that’s what’s next.

Here’s what he told me, “In my universe, nobody lies to me. They can lie to each other, they can even lie to themselves, they cannot lie to me.”

– [listen at 8 minutes]

Some luck goes unnoticed

“Coming back to the states was a shock,” he said. “The wastefulness of this country really smacks you when you’ve been away for a while, certainly in a place like that.”

“What do you mean? What’s an example?”

“I think the example that struck me is the electrical grid.”

We take it for granted that the lights go on. And then use them like crazy. I live in NY. The lights are always on. It doesn’t matter what time. And I never think about it. “American is a place of abundance,” Alex said. “I guess that’s a good thing. It’s better to be rich than poor but realize that 80% of the world is never going to live in conditions anything like this. It really does just smack you in the face to realize how lucky we are and how little we realize that.”

– [listen at 13 minutes]

Choose yourself

I asked Alex if he thinks we’re becoming complacent as a society. “Thats a real fear,” Alex said. There are two sides. One side is if you give people everything will they stop wanting to work? Will they say they have enough. And give up.

But then the other side is you work so hard and go nowhere. “The flip side of that is if you make the system so unfair that nobody believes hard work can get you ahead, they’re not going to work either.”

And I think that’s why work should be more than a paycheck. There has to be a vision. And following that vision is how you choose yourself.

– [listen at 14 minutes]

Have a little arrogance

Alex said a lot of reporters want to write novels. He was one of them. But there’s something that separates those who write from those who don’t…

“I did something arrogant,” he said. “I wrote a novel.”

So I wondered if that’s part of the formula? Do all novelists have some arrogance to write something totally made up and think other people will want to read it?

“Of course,” Alex said. “Are you kidding? It’s the craziest endeavor. ‘I’m going to create this world with these fake people and I want you to believe they’re real. And I want to make them come alive for you.’”

– [listen at 17 minutes]

Finding aspects of you

I’m curious about the characters. Like dreams, where do they come from? Is it a manifestation of yourself? Of people you know? And who leads the story? Is it the writer? Some writers say the characters are so strong psychologically that they lead the story.

Alex got his answer from his wife. She’s a psychiatrist. She says John Wells is a projection of Alex’s most idealized version of himself. “He’s strong, he’s very capable, he’s so tough. Women love him, men fear him, sheep want to be with him, ya know he’s tortured because he’s committed all this violence over the years, but he’s essentially a good guy.”

I wonder what it would be like to create my own universe and then ask a doctor to read into me. But I only know what I create if I start creating.

– [listen at 19 minutes]

How do you survive?

His books are 400 pages each. And that’s before everything gets cut down and reformatted. He used to write before work. Now it’s his full time job.

“So how do you survive? How do you sit through it?”

“Writing the books is mentally painful,” he said. “I make the characters suffer. Because I’m suffering.”

– [listen at 21 minutes]

Who’s your hero?

I wanted to know more about Alex’s hero. He could’ve made the everyman. But instead he chose a spy, someone who in danger. Maybe it’s a reflection of who we want to be. Someone with real freedom.

Alex said. “When you have nothing to lose, when you don’t care if you live or die, you have incredible freedom.”

Alex doesn’t have that freedom. He told me how he was almost kidnapped in Iraq. “People thought I was spy,” he said. ““I had a very close call. I mean everyone has a close call, but I had a very close call”

“What was your close call?”

“Ya know, I don’t like to talk about it.”

I couldn’t let this go. When someone comes on my podcast, I have one chance to ask them everything I want to know.

“Could we please talk about it?”

“I found a notebook that a Shia fighter kept… It was just a tiny green notebook. It was in the rubble of a building. And I took it.”

“They saw you pick it up?”

“No… I was dressed like a local. I had a goatee. I had my haircut shorter, but no one was going to be fooled into thinking I was Iraqi. No one who REALLY looked at me. And I didn’t speak arabic”

People got suspicious of him.

“The question was, ‘What are you doing? Why do you look like this? Why are you trying to pass… you’re not one of us. And once that happened, it just spiraled.”

“So you reached a point where you got scared,” I said.

“Oh, no no no no. It was much worse than that…”

-[listen at 32 minutes]

Get stories

I wanted to know how Alex got back home. He was detained. And almost martyred.

These experiences lead to his novels. Now, he had stories to begin fueling the John Wells series.

-[listen at 39 minutes]

Write everyday

People ask Alex how he gets his inspiration.

“I have a mortgage to pay and I have a contract. I can’t wait for inspiration.” He says he makes progress everyday.

-[listen at 48 minutes]

How do you get people to turn the page?

Alex turned the tables. He asked if I wrote a page-turner.

The answer’s no. I tried. I’ve tried for 20 years. He said one key is to let people read your work. I’ve never let anyone read my fiction. I want to know the beats.

We broke them down.

“I’m kind of the wrong person to ask about structure,” he said. “My books violate the normal structure of genre fiction.”

But I find this is true with all peak performers. They can’t explain how they do so well. It comes natural to them. So getting into the finer nuances takes effort.

I dug. And here’s what I found…

-[listen at 50 minutes]

Finding structure

  1. In the beginning, the main character is involved in something bad
  2. Then he solves it
  3. And he’s given a grace period of relief
  4. Then he goes through something worse… Alex said, “You have to have a mission and within that mission there has to be sub-missions.”
  5. It could get worse. “It depends,” Alex said. Sometime the main character gets help from somewhere else or a clue is revealed. Anything can happen.

-[listen at 1 hour]

They key to a great ending…

Eventually it ends… But here’s the key. You need a cool solve.

So I asked, “What’s a cool solve?” This is another great example of an expert knowing his craft better than the inner workings of that craft…

We went through a ton of examples. And finally landed on this:

You have to build. “For Wells, there’s always tensions. Your always asking, ‘How far will this go?’ You just got me to explain it better,” Alex said.

– [listen at 1 hour and five minutes]


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